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Transcribed by Rey Smith.
Jini Palmer: Welcome to Town Hall Seattle science series. On September 22nd, 2019 author, psychotherapist and mythologist Clyde W. Ford came to our forum stage to present a personal portrait of institutional racism in the world of tech. Clyde’s father John Stanley Ford was IBM’s first black software engineer in 1947 and two decades later, Clyde followed in his father’s footsteps. Ford presented a portrait of his family’s struggle against discrimination in his unflinching thought provoking memoir, Think Black.
Clyde W. Ford: Good evening. Thank you so much for being here. I really love Seattle and I’m so pleased that I have a chance to be here at the homecoming for Town Hall Seattle. I grew up in New York City and when I think about venues in New York that are somewhat equivalent to Town Hall Seattle, the first place that comes to mind is Carnegie Hall. How many people ever, out in the audience, have been to Carnegie Hall, by the way? Oh, look at this! Homies, huh. I’ve had the fortune both to sit in Carnegie Hall and listen to Bob Dylan’s first concert there and Pete Seeger concerts and Ravi Shankar concerts. And I also had the great fortune to be on stage at one point in Carnegie Hall when I played in one of the New York City orchestras for youth. When thinking about being here at Town Hall Seattle, a story about Carnegie Hall came to mind, and maybe you know this story.
So there’s an older man carrying a violin from a practice session at Carnegie Hall walking toward the subway at Columbus Circle and there’s a young man with a violin walking the other way and they kind of meet in the middle of the street and the young man looks at the old man and asks him, ‘Sir, can you tell me how to get to Carnegie hall?’ And the old man looks at the young man and he says, ‘Young man, practice, practice, practice.’ I was thinking about that story when some friends of mine in Bellingham asked me, ‘You’re going to do Town Halls Seattle, how did you get there?’ And I thought, ‘Write, write, write.’
Think Black is my 12th book and I’m so pleased that it’s the book that brought me here to Town Hall Seattle. I think that’s really great. I have really felt, as an author, really supported by being here in the Pacific Northwest. I’ve got some wonderful friends in many places here in the Northwest, institutions like KUOW, which I think is here this evening. You know, you guys have been really great friends over the last 30 years to me. So this is just a great place. The Northwest is a great place to be an artist, to be an author and to really be stepping into your own creativity here in the Northwest. So what I’d like to do tonight is really to give you a sense of what this book is about. And I have to say, and this might sound a little strange coming from the author, I have to say that I’m a little surprised at the effect the book has had. And I think you’ll understand it’s a book about my dad. And you don’t necessarily think about your parents in the same way you might think about some other larger-than-life figure in history.
And so a lot of people have asked me, you know, ‘This incredible story and this is great, thank you so much for sharing.’ And in the back of my mind I just keep saying, ‘Oh yeah, but that’s my dad’ and I still, 60 years on, think of him more as my dad than anything else that he did. And I think maintaining that point of view and writing the book was very helpful for me because I didn’t get ahead of myself. I simply allowed myself to step into who I knew is my father, both the wonderful aspects of that relationship and some of the challenges as well too. And that really is, how should I say, that’s the well from which this book came from. So I think the first thing I really want to do is kind of give you a sense of the times from which I started this book, particularly my time.
What was it like when I first stepped into an IBM office in 1971? It’s a funny thing, I have never seen myself on the cover of a book. And a lot of people say, ‘Is that your dad?’ No, it’s not, it’s me. So I was a little hesitant when Harper Collins said to me, ‘Hey, you know, we want to put you on the cover of the book.’ I said, ‘You’re kidding.’ Well, everybody loved the cover. And I understand people, I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback about the cover, but you have to understand from my point of view, that’s just me. And I never really saw myself as being on the cover of a book, but there I am. So a couple of things about this picture I think are really very important in terms of understanding who I was at that time. And what about this time is very significant, both in terms of the book, in terms of technology, in terms of my dad and myself. If you look closely you’ll notice—I wonder if this is working—bell-bottoms huh? Let’s see if we can date the picture. So there’s bell bottoms right down there, right? So that should really help you date the picture. Um, what do you think? What year is this picture?
Audience Member 1: ‘77
CF: ‘77 I heard. Anyone else?
Audience Member 2: ‘69.
CF: Ah, ‘69 I heard. Let’s see. Page boy had big Afro and sunglasses. Anybody else want to venture a guess?
Audience Member 3: ‘73.
CF: ‘73, okay, I’ll tell you: 1968. Now, why might you have even known about, first of all, whose picture is in the paper there?
Audience Member 4: Malcolm X.
CF: Right, Malcolm X. Extra credit—you can tell I’m a former teacher, right?—if anybody can tell me—the name of the newspaper is Mojo—I mean super extra credit if you can tell me what that newspaper was connected to in terms of an organization. Somebody would know immediately if you did, so I’ll have to tell you because unless you’re in New York in 1968 this is not something you might have known. Mojo was the newspaper for the Black Student Council or Black Student Committee—BSC, I can’t remember what the C stood for exactly—at Columbia University in 1968. What was significant about Columbia University in 1968, particularly May of ‘68, that was the year of the Columbia Uprisings and that was a really important watershed moment for a number of student movements that grew out of that. A sense of what we as students could do on campus, a sense of what we as students could do in a society. I didn’t go to Columbia, but I was at Stuyvesant High School in New York at the time and we at Stuyvesant were considered the little brothers of the big guys at Columbia who were doing the really heavy duty stuff.
It came our time a year or two later when we got to our respective colleges and what we learned about what took place in Columbia about social change then became really important for us as well too. So the picture itself tells something about ‘68 but it also tells something about who I was back in those days. I only have to show you this and you can see a pretty clear similarity to how I was dressed, how the Panthers were dressed. So it’s not a stretch I think for you, if you hear me say I was part of that whole movement of black consciousness, black radicalism as I was about to step into IBM. So really a kind of very interesting juxtaposition, which we’ll say a little bit more about as we go into the book and I’m able to do some readings for you. What about my dad’s time at IBM? What was his time like?
(Jazz music plays, then fades)
“It was the late 1940’s. Post World War II America. Anything is possible. Duke Ellington swung jazz. Jackie Robinson swung a big league bat. Brown versus board of education swung its way through the courts. Nowhere where new possibilities and promises felt more deeply than in Harlem, which was then Black America’s gravitational center. In a city college classroom on the edge of Harlem, a young black GI sat in his accounting class and his teacher invited him to her apartment for dinner. When he got there, dressed to the nines, Thomas J. Watson Sr., founder of IBM, stepped from the shadows and Watson said to my father something which my father repeated over and over again. Watson said to him, ‘I’m the only damn person in this company who can offer you a job.’” That was 1946 when Watson offered my father a job at IBM. As best as I can tell, because my father started in early January of 1947, I think it was late 46 when he was offered the job, and that then started this 37-year career that my father had. Now, when I first started writing this book, I really thought that the book I was writing was a Branch Rickey, Jackie Robinson story, and here you can see a picture of Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson. I’m sure a lot of you know it was Jackie Robinson who broke the color line in baseball, Branch Rickey who was then the manager of the Dodgers who hired Robinson actually in 1945 but Robinson was in the farm leagues for a couple of years before he actually came to bat in April, I believe it was, of 1947. So this seemed to me a really good model or analogy.
So I thought, you know, here’s the book I’m writing. I’m writing this really kind of a feel good book about my dad being the first African American who was a software engineer at what— didn’t even call it software engineer in those days; systems engineer, cause there were no software in the early days of computing—working for IBM and I thought ‘God, you know, this is a story IBM is going to love as well too because here’s a chance to really showcase a history which the company hadn’t.’ Well, one of the first things that maybe gave me a clue that there was more to this story than I realized was I wrote to the company, I said, ‘Look, I’m doing this book about my dad. My dad was the first black systems engineer hired in ‘46 directly by Watson—the old man, we called him—and I’d love to get’— I heard that it’s an open company, I worked for IBM, my dad worked for IBM—’love to get our personnel files cause I want to fact check and make sure that I’m really able to report what was there.’ And I thought, ‘God, I’d love to see what my manager wrote. The first day I walked into IBM as well too, wouldn’t that be a gas?’ And I waited and I waited and I waited and I wrote again. And I waited and I waited. And eventually after about six weeks, I got an email which said, ‘Well, we only give out personnel files to people who are either former employees directly—that was me—or have power of attorney for the former employee.’ That was me too, cause I was the executive administrator of my dad’s estate, and it says very clearly there: ‘Has durable, lasting, permanent whatever power of attorney over John Stanley Ford’s affairs forever and ever and ever. Amen.’ So I faxed all this stuff, I fax copies of that, my Washington State driver’s license to IBM, and I said, ‘You know, I think I meet all these criteria’. And I waited and I waited and I waited and I waited and I waited. And then I realized I was never going to hear back. And it really got me thinking, you know, what’s really going on there? And then my editor at Harper Collins said to me, ‘We need to know more about IBM as a company and about Watson and why he hired your dad.’ So let’s kind of hold that question out there while I just share with you a little bit about the company first that my dad was hired into, because now we’re talking 1947 post-war America. It’s right at the dawn of the computer age.
(Referencing photographs) And this is really cool because I think the next one is Watson, this is the, I say the old man, that’s what we called him and that’s what many people called him in IBM. This my dad and before I go on, I really should do the photo analysis here as well too cause this is one of the things I didn’t realize until I looked really closely at this photo. Now yes, this photo is of 20-something-odd people. My dad is one of 20 and there’s only two women in it, so the percentages are pretty low. But there’s something more important in this picture, which really tells you something about the times that my dad worked for IBM, and the women as well too. Okay. Look at the eyes on this photo. Who is looking directly into the camera as if to say ‘I belong’ and who is looking away or has their eyes covered as if to say, ‘I’m not sure I belong, at least I’m not sure I’m welcomed.’ Right. Isn’t that amazing?
I didn’t realize this until Harper Collins actually published this picture with the book. So once again, it’s my dad and the two women who are not looking directly at the camera and just about every other guy there, every other white guy there is looking in the camera. And this is real, I liked this picture because it really talks in a very direct way about the sense of privilege, who has the sense of privilege that they belong and who doesn’t feel that same way. Interesting photo.
Okay, so a little bit more about the dawn of the digital age. Here is the first—I see somebody shaking their head, there might be some people who actually know what this is, I hate to say that I do—this is actually the first ever programmable computer. Now if you got a cell phone— and I hope you’ve turned your cell phones off, nobody asked you to do that so you can just really gently slip into your pocket and flip the button to turn it off so it doesn’t buzz—but if you weigh your cell phone, my guess is that it’s going to be what, four or five ounces maybe if, that heavy. This is an IBM model 407. It weighed three tons. Little bit different, huh? I got on the internet the other day, this is about two weeks ago, and I got the control panel for an actual model 407 and this is something I know really well because I saw a lot of these growing up. Right there in that handle, you pulled open that handle and inserted this control panel and that’s how we programmed computers. Now what I don’t have here, and the guy was supposed to send it to me, never did, is you went wire to wire, hole to hole. You had one wire, they’re called patch cords, and you plugged it into holes and so you ended up with something that looked like this. See that, here’s an even better one.
And what those did is they connected circuits together inside of the 407. So the 407—and let me just go back here for a minute, give you better sense—so right over here you had a bunch of cards and these were punch cards and the 407 read the punch cards and the punch cards told the computer what to do. But the programming happened over here and that actually physically, I mean electrically, electro mechanically, connected circuits in the 407 together so the circuits would know how to read the punch cards, how to—it only did addition, it didn’t even really do a subtraction, you had to add negative numbers to do addition—but it would add and do this kind of minimal subtraction. Didn’t do any division or multiplication early on. And then it printed out results on this modified typewriter here. This was the first programmable computer. And I just want to read a section from the book to you because it reminded me so much of what it must have been like for the early archeologists who first discovered the bones of Lucy.
So let’s try this. As far as machines go, it looked unremarkable, but then so did that Ethiopian gully where Donald Johanson made his remarkable archeological find. A card reader, a converted typewriter, a door at the far right and all housed in a plain gray frame. A humerus, some vertebrae, the back of a skull, all lying on a slope above the gully. One by one Johanson and his graduate student, Tom Gray, picked up the bone fragments, piecing them together into a skeleton named Lucy, which told an outstanding story of the dawn of the human race. One by one smartphones, laptops, notebooks, the internet, social media, crowdsourcing, Apple, Microsoft, Google, fragments of our digital era can all trace their stories back to that unremarkable machine at the dawn of the digital age.
So this is the first machine that my dad learned on. And one of the things my dad would do is he would bring these control boards home— and these are heavy, this in and of itself was probably, I don’t know, three or four pounds, maybe more, maybe five pounds—he brings these control boards home with a bunch of patch cords, colored patch cords. They were yellow and blue and red and orange like you saw on the picture that I had up before and I’ll show you again. And he’d put these on the kitchen table and he’d have a basket of these and he’d have the instructions for which goes where and he would, this is mid 1950’s and he would say to my sister and I, ‘Okay, I’m going to teach you how to work with these computers.’ And we would sit there plugging this and plugging that in. And of course he would just say the next day, ‘Oh, everything you did just worked great. The computer did exactly what you guys told it to do.’ And so we got to feel like we were really learning about these machines. And we really were. And I know there’s a lot of talk about digital natives these days, but I have to admit: when I’m in a room of people, I’m usually the oldest digital native there.
Okay, so let’s just go on. And again, this is what these boards, when they’re all wired, look like. Programmers, I, my dad, we used to call this basket weaving because a fully wired control board even looks like a basket woven in a sense. And that’s what, for those of you without ever written code, that’s what the written code looked like. It was nothing to write. You drew arrows and lines between which hole you went from to which hole the other end of the patch cord went. This was the first program and that’s again why my dad was not hired as a software engineer, he was hired as a systems engineer. There was no software, there was no idea of what software was in ‘47; nobody knew, the word hadn’t really been invented in that day. Okay, let’s go a little further with this. So here’s my dad in the 40’s, in the 50’s, working for IBM. Really feeling the sense of somewhat privilege and yet in the world outside of him, a lot of things are changing. And as I reflected on his story and mine as his son, I begin to realize the extent to which the world outside of IBM and the world inside of IBM were, in many ways, colliding for him. So let me read a section from this book which talks about some of those collisions.
“On August 28th, 1963, I scan the small black and white television screen in my grandparents’ living room for glimpses of my parents. A mellifluous baritone boomed. ‘I am happy to join with you today and what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.’ 11 years old, I searched the millions of black faces lining the grassy mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial. While I allowed Martin Luther King Jr’s words to sear me deeply. ‘I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.’ I never saw my parents on television that day, but that did not arrest my pride in knowing they marched for something really big, for something really important. They were marching for me, they said upon leaving me behind with my grandparents.
Now, I knew the horrors of Jim Crow, even as a child. A few summers before the March on Washington, we’d taken a Greyhound bus south to visit my mother’s family in Virginia. At the Mason-Dixon line in Maryland, we were forced to change to a bus marked ‘Colored Only’ that waited behind the Maryland House, now a popular rest stop, on I-95.”
So this was what was going on outside of IBM while my father was working in IBM. And I want to go a little further with this and just read from a section of a book of how I saw my dad change as he came back from the March: “After returning from the March on Washington, something inside my father changed. Our family returned to Virginia that next summer, but this time we drove. On the trip home we stopped at the Maryland House where only a few years earlier we’d been forced to change buses heading South.
We sat at the lunch counter reading our menus when, behind the counter, a waitress walked over to inform us, ‘We don’t serve colored people here.’ She turned to walk away. My mother looked across my sister and me to my father. She whispered, ‘Stanley, now’s the time to take a stand.’ She held her hand out in front of us, ‘Kids, you stay where you are.’ We did not rise. The waitress returned. She snarled, ‘Thought I told you we don’t serve your kind.’ My father snapped, ‘And we’re not leaving until you do.’ Our waitress disappeared into the kitchen. I looked up moments later, a man in a white shirt and tie, presumably the manager, pushed through the kitchen doors, a determined look on his red face. The waitress trailed him smirking. I twisted around in my stool. The entire restaurant had grown silent as the other customers, all white, turn to follow the unfolding set of events. ‘Don’t look at other people,’ my mother scolded. ‘Turn around. Look at your menu.’ But the manager must have felt the stares as well and perhaps paused to ponder the wisdom of alienating his white patrons, many of whom stopped here when heading home on their way North. By the time he reached us, the manager’s determination had dissolved into an insincere, syrupy Southern smile. ‘Hi folks, what y’all havin’?’ he asked. After we made our selections from the menu, the waitress stormed off. We sat and waited while behind us the buzz of conversation slowly returned. When the waitress finally appeared without order, she slapped the plates down on the counter. ‘Don’t know what you people hope to accomplish by this,’ she hissed.”
So I also saw some other things change in my dad as well. He had been through a number of years where the promotions he deserved, he didn’t get, where the people he trained later became his managers. And at first I saw a man who really acquiesced to a lot of that. Later I saw a man who started to find ways to fight back. And I want to tell you how he began to fight back, but I want to set this in a little bit larger context. And I think the context to set this in is really the context that my wonderful editor at Harper Collins, Tracy Sherrod, who is really the director who heads Amistad Press, the division of Harper Collins that’s published the book—I was sitting down with Tracy several years ago over lunch and she said to me, ‘We have to know, the readers have to know why was your dad hired? Who was Watson and why did Watson in 1946 hire your dad?’
Well, again, I had been thinking this is an easy story, this is a feel good story about a black guy who gets hired post-war because of all the things that are changing in this country. As I scratched the surface, I begin to realize, oh my god, there’s more going on here. And I told you a little bit about what I realized might have been taking place earlier when IBM was not responding to me. The first place I looked though was the Jackie Robinson, Branch Rickey story, all that we popularly believe it is. And that’s when I started to see, wait a minute, Branch Rickey wasn’t just this nice white gentleman who decided he wanted to make a difference and hire a black guy into major league baseball. There was a lot more going on there than meets the eye. And as I started to see that Ricky was driven by political forces, was driven by economic forces, lots of other things, I begin to ask myself, well, what were some of the forces that were driving Watson to hire my dad? Wow. That question opened up a Pandora’s box of what was really going on in the world of high tech at that time, and in particularly with IBM.
Now these two gentlemen, you may not know. Top left is Madison Grant. Down here is Charles Davenport. Madison Grant wrote a book in the 1920s called the passing of the great race. That book unfortunately is still very popular today with white supremacists and white nationalists. Charles Davenport was head of the eugenics records office centered in Cold Springs Harbor, New York at the Cold Springs Harbor Laboratories set up by the Carnegie Mellon Institute. Hey, even as late as January, 2019, Cold Springs Harbor was in the news, not because of the laboratories as much as because of one of their fellows, James Watson of Crick and Watson of the DNA, of the Nobel prize who had—again, unfortunately—who has had this history of racist utterances about the intelligence of people of color versus people who are not of color. And the cold Springs Harbor Laboratory actually stripped him of his medals for all the bizarre things that he said, but a lot of that started right here in the 1920s. It started with eugenics. Eugenics is a study—a pseudoscience, really the pseudoscience which seeks to find and breed a pure stock, so-called Nordic stock, and eliminate anybody else who is not part of that. So the unfortunate thing about eugenics is that a lot of people wouldn’t even realize, for example, that somebody so involved in women’s health, like Margaret Sanger, was deeply involved in eugenics. She viewed the work that she did with birth control in her words as ‘getting rid of the weeds.’ So eugenics is looking for a way to identify individuals to be culled, and that’s the word they use, by any number of means, by sometimes forced sterilization, miscegenation laws—those are laws that don’t allow for people of different races to marry—and even in some cases, death. I mean, all of this is part of the eugenics plan.
1928 comes along, actually ‘26, when Davenport got the money for a study in Jamaica of mixed raced individuals. The idea was, let’s see if we can identify mixed race individuals for our various means of population control so we can really remove them from the breeding population and not have them quote ‘polluting’—again, I’m using the words that eugenicists used—’polluting’ the racial pool. Huge study, got funded for it. 1928 the study kicked off, but the problem was there was too much data to be collected, analyzed for this study to be done successfully by people writing this down. About 1922, 1924 Watson had exceeded to the presidency of four companies that were put together, which eventually he renamed IBM. So IBM is a young company in ‘28. They’re looking for work and Watson realizes, boy, there’s something to do with eugenics.
And so in 1928 Watson really brought into the whole eugenics movement this incredible invigoration around being able to help Davenport and his study on the Island of Jamaica collect, sort, analyze and identify mixed race individuals. That study was so successful that eugenicists around the world were thinking, this is the way to go. Wow. To realize that this is the start of high tech was quite something and it was really troubling to realize this was where the beginnings of our high tech industry is. But that was just the beginning of what was troubling. Where does it go next? 1933. Watson and IBM realized, ‘Hey, there’s more here. We figured out a way of how to identify in a population who belongs and who doesn’t belong and who—more than, at that point, the Third Reich and Hitler— wanted that kind of technology and it’s not just IBM.
I mean, Hitler was deeply involved in eugenics. The American eugenics movement was the basis for much of the Third Reich’s program against Jews and other undesirables. I believe this is the gate going into Dachau, which I visited. ‘Arbeit macht dich Frei’, work makes you free. Of course we all know that that wasn’t true. Look, IBM used the same punch card formats even that was used in the eugenics movement and the eugenic studies in 1928, brought them into Germany and began to automate just about every aspect of the Third Reich, from counting livestocks to counting Jews to identifying how those Jews would be transported on trains to concentration camps. In the concentration camps an IBM room had punched card equipment which then had a column, I believe it was column 22 if I remember correctly, which actually told how that individual was going to be exterminated, in ovens and the gas chambers, work to death put in front of a firing squad. I’m sure some of you have seen, either in movies or in actual photographs, tattoos of numbers on prisoners. Often those tattoos were directly correlated with a number on a punched card. I mean, this was Dachau, this is the ovens Dachau, this is an actual punch card. The third Reich went through billions of punched cards a year. IBM made sure that there was only one source they could get those punch cards from because they designed their equipment in such a way that it would only read punch cards of the format that it created. Now I want to be really clear on this, and again, I’m not the first person to do this research—there’s a wonderful book on this called IBM and the Holocaust—but I want to be clear about one thing: IBM didn’t sell this equipment, so they simply said, ‘We don’t know how they were using it.’ IBM never sold their equipment. At least up until the time that I worked there, they only leased their equipment. So they were directly involved in how that equipment was used. Their engineers helped to modify and maintain that equipment. So it would be used in a correct way, correct, in this sense, based on what the Third Reich wanted. And in 1937, you can find this picture on the internet if you so choose, Hitler created a special medal for Thomas Watson, which he pinned on him, festooned with swastikas and it was a metal for his support of the Third Reich and their program to exterminate those who are undesirable in their country.
Wow. I must say that when I started to read this—and I don’t know if Scott’s there, my friend Scott Blake from Bellingham remembers that time—I was physically sick. I was physically sick. I wanted to dry heave. I wanted to vomit. I couldn’t read through this material straight. I had to just take it in little chunks because it was too disturbing. Way too disturbing. So now you ask the question again: why is my dad hired by a company which has this background? And about the time my dad was hired, a handful of other Jewish Americans were hired as well too. I came to the conclusion—and I actually had the opportunity to speak with Edwin Black who wrote IBM and the Holocaust and I passed this by him, he said, ‘Absolutely right.’—I came to the conclusion that Watson hired my dad as a means of diversion and misdirection so that what the company had been involved in and what they were trying to do, and what they were trying to do was literally extract as much money as they could from post-World War II Germany, without people realizing how that money was made.
And I tell more of this story in the book, I won’t go through all of that right now, simply to say most companies went through a special agency in which they had to pay reparations to get their money. They had basically ill-gotten gains out of Germany. Not IBM. IBM got just all the millions that it made directly and a lot of people could understand how a car made by Ford Motors or GM might really support the war machine. Nobody got how, in 1946, how punchcards might make a difference, and yet that is what really made a difference for the Third Reich. I don’t think I fully understood that until I did this research, I didn’t know this. I didn’t know this. I don’t even think my dad knew this, so I’m thinking, ‘Okay, God, this is a horrible story, but it has to be told because this is really important for people to know.’ End of the war, does the story stop?
Well, one of the things that we know in software, we talked about this a lot in software, I mean it’s reusability, anybody out there who’s written software is involved at Microsoft as some of the folks at Zeno are, knows that when you create a successful piece of software, you don’t just put it away. You say to yourself, ‘Wow, this is pretty cool. Let me see how many other places I can use the same technology in.’ So now we’re post-World War II America, and if I am looking around the world, where am I going to look to that might have some similarities to what I saw in Nazi Germany. Pretty obvious, it’s going to be in South Africa and without really knowing that I would find something there necessarily, that’s where I looked and what I found again was really quite horrifying: IBM deeply involved in every aspect of automating and the technology behind the apartheid regime. It was IBM that designed special equipment to produce the passbooks. First, the passbooks that were created for white South Africans called the Book of Life. And then the passbooks that were created for Black South Africans who were basically put on Bantustans, on these little villages, these compounds. You couldn’t walk out of the compound without having this passbook. Black South Africans called them Dom passes, which really means dumb passes. But they were the passbooks which actually determined often whether you lived or died. And those past books had behind them databases, which were based on the computer technology, first punch cards, and as we got into the 60s and 70s now, more sophisticated databases and other software—all created by IBM. And I’m thinking, ‘Wow, this is really deep.’ So now I’m writing the book and I’m thinking, ‘Wait a minute, eugenics, the Holocaust, apartheid, where do you go next? If you create a technology that works, you don’t stop.’ So, you know, I started to think, ‘Well what is going on in our day and age that’s similar?’ And the similarity here is technology to discriminate based on race.
Wow. 2018 I think I found a report in The Intercept—thank God for The Intercept, I love that paper—and that intercept report talked about IBM’s involvement, post-9/11, unknown to New Yorkers, they used information from—New York City set up after the towers collapsed, they set up something called the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative, LMSI, 4,000 to 8,000 cameras all over the city, CTTV cameras coming into a central room with all sorts of video analytics or software that looks at the cameras and tries to distinguish features of what they’re seeing—and one of the things that IBM was working on unknownst to New Yorkers was: how do you discriminate based on skin color?
Now, I mean, you start to think, is this real? And yet it is. And folks, it’s not just IBM any longer. It’s happening right now, today. 10 days ago, there was a group of Jewish peace activists, Never Again Action, who marched in Boston from a Holocaust Memorial to Amazon’s headquarters. And why did they choose the Holocaust Memorial? I was just really, I don’t know if heartened is the right word, but I really felt like, here’s some young people who are getting it. I heard them on TV, I heard them on Democracy Now. the woman who spoke said, ‘We are marching from the Holocaust Memorial because we want to draw the line between what IBM did in Nazi Germany and what’s going on at our Southern borders with facial recognition right now.’ This is really important. It’s important for us to understand this connection between this dark side of technology so we’re not lulled into a belief that just because it’s high tech, it’s gotta be good. We have a responsibility as citizens using technology. We have a responsibility to make sure that the technology we’re engaged with, the technology that we’re using is being used to foster a society that we want, as opposed to a society that’s going to bring the most profit for the tech corporations involved. And that’s why I really love what organizations like Never Again Action are doing because they’re saying, ‘You have to understand the history if you’re going to understand how to make a difference.’ And it’s not just even with facial recognition technology and Amazon.
So, just a couple of pieces: in the book I ask readers—I have to say just again, so you understand this: I didn’t think this was the book I was going to write—but I ask readers to type into anything other than a Google search engine, to type in the same terms, ‘black on white crime’ that Dylan Roof typed in shortly before he murdered 9 people in a South Carolina church. In August of 2018, when I typed those words into Microsoft’s Bing search engine the results I got back were not that different from the results that Dylan Roof got back. The first result I got back on my search page was from Alex Jones’ Info Wars. The second result I got back was from the American Renaissance movement. Neither of those two organizations, in any rational universe, qualifies to offer any information on the status of race relations in our country. There was nothing, let’s say, from an FBI report on real crime. There is nothing from the Southern Poverty Law Center about these organizations that Dylan Roof saw. Now, I’m not making excuses for Roof and I’m not blaming Google because that’s what they delivered to him in terms of a search page. What I am saying is that we as technology consumers need to understand that just because something appears on the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, or 5th rank of a search page doesn’t make it more true. In fact, digital literacy is one of the most important things that we need to be about as technology consumers, that our young people need to be about as technology consumers. Too often young people will say, ‘It’s high enough on the search ranks, it’s gotta be the truth.’ And that is a fact. We know from the research and that’s why it’s so important that an organization like Never Again Action takes the actions that they do to hopefully really advocate for changes in digital literacy curriculum that start— you know, how old are your kids when they start swiping cell phones, three?— that’s the age at which we really have to engage with this. So, part of the book then really became this call to action to make a difference, for example, so that a company never produces a game like Slave Tetris. This was a game just produced in 2015. Yes, the idea was we want to teach something about the horrors of the Middle Passage where 60 million Africans died, but here’s how the company thought they were going to do that: you have hold of a slave ship and on your computer or cell phone screen, you walk Africans up the ladder and then they drop into the hull of the slave ship and, just like any Tetris game, you move them right or left to see how tight you can pack them.
What is in the minds of these people? Well, what’s in the minds is really the biases that we bring to the work that we do and if it’s technology and writing software, the biases that we bring to that software are going to be the biases that we grew up with, and unless technology companies are ready to really try to make a difference in this field and to go out and say, ‘You can’t do that.’, to perhaps have test subjects and test groups where you test out Slave Tetris beforehand and you see, as eventually happened with many people, you can’t release a product like that because it’s just crazy. But it’s not just Slave Tetris. I mean look, when Google picture search—and I’m sure many of you have used Google pictures search, so you drag a picture or you bring a picture up from your hard drive and you ask Google to find something similar to that and tell you what this is a picture of—when a Google picture search was done on Michelle Obama, the results gotten back were gorillas. When a Google location search was done on the term, ‘the n-word house’ during the time that Obama was president, Google maps popped up the location of the White House. Microsoft, in 2016, released a chat bot. A chat bot is basically a software that goes scouring the internet, interacting with people on Twitter to learn. They released the chatbot within 24 hours, it was called Tay. Within 24 hours Tay started saying things when you asked it a question, cause you could treat it like a person. If you asked Tay the question, ‘Did the Holocaust happen?’ Tay would say ‘It never happened. I hate Jews.’ If you asked Tay a question about women, it was incredibly misogynistic. ‘I think all women should go to hell.’ If you asked Tay a question about DeRay Mckesson, who was one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, Tay said, ‘He should be hanged.’
This is the technology that we’re using, that our young people are using, that our grandkids and our kids and our students are using. And unless we get in there and do something, the technology by itself is not going to just decide that it wants to be egalitarian and inclusive and diverse. And that’s what I think has been so important. And I think that’s really part of what I came to in understanding this book is that my father, while he had a very deep hand—and I talk about this in the book—a really deep hand in helping to develop the foundations of what would become the internet, without which none of these companies that we have out here today in Seattle and Silicon Valley and other places would exist, while my dad helped to do that, I don’t think he and his IBM brethren really understood that they were releasing a monster into the world. And unless we take the next steps of trying to tame that monster, I don’t think the technology is going to deliver for us the society that we hope for and certainly the society that my dad and his IBM colleagues hope for.
My dad used to talk about how technology is really going to be a more democratizing force. Look at what happened in 2016 and how technology was used to do anything but allow us to be a democracy. My dad used to talk about how technology is colorblind. It’s really gonna help when machines are making hiring decisions, and all these other things. What he didn’t realize is the people who write the algorithms, that cause the machines to do the hiring decisions come with the same biases that were there before. And so my book then really became a call to action for us first to understand the technology we work with and secondly to make sure that our kids, our grandkids and any opportunity we have to help others realize the importance of recognizing how this technology in and of itself might be used unless we really begin to control it.
So I wanted to leave some time for questions. So anybody want to be first. Please. Thank you. And please say your name.
Audience Member 5: I’m Mary Lee Fuller, and my question is, did you ever get those personnel records from IBM?
CF: No, I never did. And when I talked to Edwin Black, the author of IBM and the Holocaust, he said to me, and he was very kind, he called me out of the blue maybe two weeks ago and he said, ‘I feel a little better now cause I know it wasn’t just me.’ When he asked for her records from IBM, he didn’t get them. I don’t know if I’ll get them. I did have a woman who works for Vox Media, that’s one of the big media companies whose only client is IBM, she said, ‘I’d like to see if I could broker some type of interchange between you and IBM.’ I was very upfront with her and I said, ‘I don’t think this is going to go over too well, but we’ll see.’ So there is maybe the possibility of some engagement discussion. I don’t know. From what I’ve heard, just about every investigative reporter, researcher who has gone, I almost want to say to bat with IBM, has not really gotten anything from the company in terms of first an acknowledgement of their involvement with eugenics, the Holocaust—it’s a little harder to deny their involvement with apartheid because those records are so public and many of them are are in the court system—but certainly with eugenics and the Holocaust, those records are not as easily available. So IBM has never acknowledged it, but they’ve never denied it. They’ve never denied one fact about their involvement with the Holocaust. And in fact, when Edwin Black was talking to me, he said, ‘Look, if anybody has a question, you send them to me. I have 35 file cabinets with folders for every reference and lots of documentations highlighted and underlined. I’ve got the facts and IBM’s never denied them.’ Thanks for your question.
Audience Member 6: My question is, you said that your father was hired by IBM, your father was an accountant. Did you say that was true?
CF: I didn’t say that, but go ahead with your question and I’ll go into it a little more.
Audience Member 6: I’d like to make the connection between hiring him as an accountant, or what you’re about to share going into being an analyst of some kind, I think it’s really interesting when we hire people from one genre or one area career into something else. It happens often for skill sets that we often don’t see, so I’d be interested.
CF: Thanks for your question, Danielle. So my dad was hired out of an accounting class at City College. In the early days of computing, there were no computer science curriculums, that wasn’t even an issue. Nobody even thought in those terms. So what computers were used for in the earliest days were essentially three main things. One was financial accounting for companies. That was a really big deal, particularly for large companies, banks. I worked for IBM, but in their federal reserve office. They’d writ on the order of several millions of dollars a month worth of IBM equipment just to keep track of what was going on with financial transactions. And the third one was military and weather, that was a really big deal for computers early on. So companies like IBM, NCR in those days, General Electric, any company involved in computers were looking for people who had the skills closest to the areas where the computers were being used.
That was one reason my dad was first hired as an accountant, and I have in the back of the book—Hey, let me do this if you don’t mind, I’m going to read something that’s related to this. I think you might get a kick out of this, Danielle and maybe everybody else here. I haven’t done this before, but I think you’ll enjoy this. So this is my dad. He’s hired as an accountant and he starts to work with these machines. And this is, I think one of the earliest poems from the dawn of the digital era and it’s entitled “Debit Memo”. “Hail to thee, trite paper, O nightmare of a clerk, the cause of many a caper, of some pencil pushing jerk. Comes night when I am sleeping, and resting peacefully, I see you plainly weeping and begging, ‘please code me.’ I blow a fuse more or less, and nasty words I mutter, but truly I will confess, you are my bread and butter.” So what’s important about that, Danielle, is you see even in my dad’s poem there, he’s talking about accounting, but he’s talking about coding, and what happened in those days is my dad’s first job at IBM was to code debit memos. That’s why he entitled the poem “Debit Memo” and he was coding debit memos. He would basically look at—and I believe a debit memo is money that somebody owes IBM—and in this case he would take those and write instructions that he would hand off to women who were mainly typing in punch cards. Those punch cards would then produce something based on what my dad told them to do. Those would be loaded in a machine like an IBM 407.
So that was the early part of why accountants were hired. But there’s another piece that’s also important that I want to mention and it’s something I think was very good about IBM. IBM didn’t care if you had a math, science, STEM background. In fact, a lot of times they didn’t even want you to have that because they figured, ‘We’ll teach you whatever you need to know about these computers. We want people who have expansive minds. We want people who think outside the box. We want people who are fluent in lots of different things other than math and tech,’ and that’s what I think I really liked about the company. I had a degree in history and mathematics. They hired me and they trained me for whatever I need to know about technologically. And many people in those days, they were musicians, they were chess players, they were really interested in literature, they had expansive minds, and that’s what the company really was after. That I think is something that we need to understand today because too often we’re focused and we’re pushing students too narrowly in the STEM fields and dropping off liberal arts, which I really think is a shame because it’s philosophy, it’s psychology that expands your mind and then allows you to look at what you can even potentially do with technology. I think that’s really important. So again, thank you for your question. Sorry for the long winded New York answer. Yes, please.
Audience Member 7: My name is Park and my question follows: how was your first day of work at IBM and why did you choose to go there?
CF: So, good questions. That’s a great question. So I remember when I chose to go to IBM. I was walking across Wesleyan University’s campus, that’s where I went to college, and as I’m walking across, I’m in my senior year, I’m only 19 and I’m thinking, ‘What do I want to do? I know I don’t want to work with computers for the rest of my life,’ but I heard my dad’s voice and this is something he said over and over and over again: ‘Learn computers. Whatever you do, you’ll always have to have a job.’ Was he ever right? You know, was he ever right? I mean, yes, I love being an artist and an author, but I also love the fact that I can fall back on computers when I need to without even thinking about it. And that I can walk into just about any computer setting, and I probably know as much, if not more, than most people simply because I can go back to the beginning and I remember what it was like in the beginning. And so I really have used that to my advantage. And it’s been a lot of fun. As an author, early on I wrote some software to help people pull together various parts of their writing and help them analyze it and understand it, and that was fun for me and I really enjoy that. And again, it’s just been an opportunity. I never felt like—and this is a really good point, I worked for IBM for seven years and then I went to chiropractic college—I knew I wasn’t going to work for that company for most of my life. A lot of young folks, particularly people of color, when I was working there would get to IBM and it’s like, ‘Oh they, they’re at the promise land’ and they couldn’t understand my point of view, which was: this isn’t the promise land, this is just a way stop in your journey of life. Now I think it’s more true, you know, we don’t get one career nowadays for 37 years like my dad did. And I think young people have to come to that understanding that they have a job and it is only one step in their life’s journey. So I think we will have time for a couple more questions please.
Audience Member 8: Thank you. Brian Wells. So my question was, how did your career at IBM influence your academic friendships and your nonacademic friendships as a computer scientist? How did you bring that information back to your community to influence others to perhaps get into technology, as a black man?
CF: Really great question. So one of the things I did, and in fact it started the summer before— and I tell this story in the book—it started the summer before I went to work for IBM. I had an interview at IBM and the man who was to become my manager said to me—well I think it was June or it may have even been May—he said, ‘I want you to come to work in June.’ I said, ‘I can’t do that.’ He said, ‘What do you mean you can’t do that? I’m a manager at IBM, I just offered you a job and you can’t come to work?’ And I said, ‘No, I can’t because I have something to do.’ He said, ‘What? What could you possibly have to do that’s more important?’ I said, ‘I teach at a program run by Columbia University called Project Double Discovery,’ and what Project Double Discovery is all about is taking— this is ‘71—Project Double Discovery was all about taking young people who had failed high school, hence the double discovery, and finding ways to help them realize that they had the skills to succeed in math and science and other areas as well too.
I was teaching math in those days and I made sure that I had the opportunity to work with those young people in such a way that would really help them realize how good they were. And just to give you a little bit—I don’t want to give away everything that’s in the book—so when we did a geometry class, I started and—these are kids from Harlem, man, they’re tough, they’re not going to let you get over with anything too easy—so imagine this, I walk into a geometry class and the book that I have is Malcolm X Speaks. They’re like, ‘This ain’t no geometry texts,’ but the whole point was, and for those of you that remember, that whole point is how do you prove a point? How do you prove something? And you prove something by having theorems and you prove something by having methods of going from a theorem to an idea, it’s the whole step.
Malcolm speeches are great in doing that. So we took Malcolm X’s speeches and then we set up a court where I was the judge and they were arguing back and forth. And then we slowly transitioned to arguing about are those two angles equal. And then slowly I stopped being the judge and they started being the judge. And by the end of the class they were like, ‘Wow, nobody ever told us about this in school. If they had, I might be really into this.’ So there are ways to reach young people and the folks here at Zeno know that and they’re doing that. And that’s so great. And I love that you folks are doing that. Good for you. And that’s what I think is important. The other thing I’ve done, I really try to do this even with my company now; it’s a small software company in Bellingham. We’re kind of somewhat of a virtual company, but there we are in Bellingham near Western Washington University, and whenever I get the opportunity—is anybody who’s been an intern of mine here in the class? Hey man, how you doing?—so one of the things we try to do is to make sure we bring folks like Khalil into the company to give them a sense, a step up. Now, I’m really thrilled that Khalil was able to get a job with Microsoft, first it was temporary, and he’s a permanent now?
Audience Member 9/Khalil: Yep, all done.
CF: Good, well done man. But those are things I think I learned from my dad, that you gotta do to get back. I didn’t get a chance to tell this story, so I’m going to tell a real compressed version of the story. My dad, in one of his dresser drawers, hid copies of the IBM entrance exam. I don’t know how he got them. He never told me how he got him. And okay, I’ll tell you a little bit more of the story. He hid them beneath his Playboy magazines. As a young man coming of age, yes, I thumbed through some of those Playboys, I will admit that, but I realized later on that more risque was what was beneath the Playboys: there was a dog-earred, gray envelope marked IBM, which had copies of the IBM entrance exam and questions. Every so often a promising young black man—I don’t know if there are any women who came who came to our house—we’d never seen these people before, they’d come to the house, my dad would tell my sister and I to get lost, I’d hear him rummage into that drawer. He’d pull out the envelope dog hand envelope, they’d sit at a table and they’d just be whispering back and forth for several hours, not hear anything more than that. Three or four months later, my dad would sit down at the dinner table. ‘You remember that guy that came by? You never believe it. He did so well on the IBM entrance exam, they had to hire him.’ I learned then about giving back. But let me tell you the little bit of the knife twist on that story and you can read the details later. So when I got to be hired by IBM, of course I had to take the answers exam too. So I’m thinking, ‘Hey man, I’m going to have all the questions and answers. I go to the bottom of the dresser drawer and it’s not there. I asked my dad; ‘What envelope?’ and because I scored less than he did, I never heard the last of it for the rest of my life. Thank you for that question. I hope that answered it to some extent.
Haley Freedlund: That’ll conclude our Q&A, but if you didn’t get a chance to ask your question, Mr. Ford will be available to talk and sign over there in the library. Thank you again so much.
CF: Thank you very much.
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